We live in the world Liberace created.
Of course, it’s not the part of Liberace that he hoped we’d notice.
It’s one of those sad ironies where we remember people for exactly the thing they did not ask to be remembered for. People who hope they will go down in the annals of history as gifted piano players instead get noted for their garish displays and personal habits.
Some people ask for this. You didn’t see the Marquis de Sade saying, “But I’m a writer first, and a pursuer of deviant sex acts second.” But others discover the tragedy of disappearing into their own personae. Sometimes the mask is the only part that survives.
It’s also strange how absent Liberace is from the world he created. Flamboyant, glitzy, schmaltzy performers like “Mr. Showmanship” are more the norm than not, now. But Liberace himself is nowhere to be found. You don’t find his CDs on the rack (well, who buys CDs any longer, anyway? But metaphorically speaking…) or his image on t-shirts, the way Elvis and Marilyn Monroe still linger in our collective popular unconscious. He is consigned into the Bizarro Rummage Bin of history, with Tiny “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” Tim, even though he spent decades as one of the most highly compensated showmen in the biz.
Elvis survives. But what happened to Liberace?
A biopic of Liberace, entitled Behind the Candelabra, airs on HBO this weekend, focusing on precisely the side of his life Liberace didn’t want to dwell on. And it doesn’t focus on the piano playing and schmaltz that endeared Liberace to audiences worldwide. It instead dwells on his private life, exactly the thing he was hoping we’d hop over, or take as assumed with a wink and a megawatt grin (do grins come in any other wattage?).
Who is Liberace?
He was a piano-pounding showman who, at the height of his popularity, outsold even Elvis’s live shows. His TV show was more popular than “I Love Lucy.”
Liberace was born in Milwaukee, Wisc., on May 16, 1919. His real name was the gloriously unpronounceable Wladziu Valentino Liberace. So he shortened it to “Lee Liberace” and then simply “Liberace.”
He was the original Lady Gaga. He was an Entertainer with a capital E who traded in spectacle. True, his trademark accessory was candelabras, not sunglasses; his outlandish costumes were befurred and befeathered, not angular and metallic. But like her, he was a fiercely talented pianist with a penchant for onstage stunts and outrageous attire — and an out-sized persona that blurred into a cult of personality.
“I don’t give concerts,” Liberace said. “I put on a show!”
Liberace was a performer who entertained his audiences with a persona that was as much an act as his act itself. And it was quite an act. He flew around the stage. He smashed pianos with sledgehammers. He sported outlandish regalia that made him look like a Technicolor Count Dracula.
Liberace specialized in the same sort of gender-bending antics that Lady Gaga has embraced. All the furor about Lady Gaga — is she really a man? What about that photo shoot? — has played out before, with Liberace. A writer in the Daily Mirror called him “the summit of sex — the pinnacle of Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Everything that He, She or It can ever want.” Sounds like Gaga. True, this was the 1950s, so such words were dangerous. Liberace sued the writer for libel — and won, although the jurors in his case were warned not to watch his Sunday night TV show lest it prejudice them.
But time has not been kind to the Glitter Man. Unlike Elvis or Judy Garland, Liberace vanished into comparative obscurity, except for the Liberace Museum in Vegas that houses his costumes and props. And that closed in 2010.
One moment, you’re prancing around on a stage in an outfit that looks like you shot a particularly flamboyant polar bear, the next you’ve disappeared from the popular consciousness. Nobody remixes his classic renditions of “Moon River.” You don’t see annual tributes to Liberace or impersonators of “Mr. Showmanship.”
Perhaps America wasn’t ready for him. Or perhaps he didn’t go far enough. Although he did push some boundaries, there was something fundamentally wholesome about him. Liberace endeared himself most to middle-aged women — not screaming adolescents. A reporter quoted one of his fans as saying: “”I love his playing, his love for his mother, and his reverence for God,” said the woman. “To my mind he represents what the American home used to represent: stability, refinement and culture.” This doesn’t quite spring to mind when we picture him today. But they gave him staying power — the same blue-haired ladies who had enjoyed his playing as a young man filled the seats of his extravagant Vegas show in the 1980s. Will Lady Gaga fare so well?
The same crowd that gave him so many decades of staying power vanished immediately with his death and the revelation of what killed him — an opportunistic pneumonia that proved fatal in combination with AIDS. Now we’re left with a movie that focuses on the part of the story he sought not to have to tell. These days, we’re all about the life behind the footlights.
But his mark is all over our culture. He had the first bling. “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” he quoted Mae West. He sure knew how to put on a show — and that went for his life, too.